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Learning to Learn

Orientation Week has been busy, with students arriving, trips to North Campus for hiking, canoeing, and connecting with each other, and meetings to ready the community for a positive year of life and learning together. Some of these meetings were set aside for an important topic that sometimes gets neglected in schools: metacognition, or reflecting on how people effectively learn new information. This is an interest of mine, and I was excited to be able to share some of my findings with the whole student body.


For the first session, I drew on an article by Steven Chew, “An Advance Organizer for Student Learning: Choke Points and Pitfalls in Studying.” Students learned how our senses bring things to our attention and how our attention needs to focus on what is most important. This keeps the working memory from shifting into cognitive overload. The working memory also draws on information in the long-term memory in order to encode the new information and move it into the long-term memory. They then learned the four natural obstacles to effective learning that are described in Chew’s article: 

  1. Attention is Narrow

  2. Working Memory is Limited

  3. Concentration is Hard

  4. We Forget Stuff

To help make this memorable, I described the “memory image” that I use to remember this: There is a leak in the roof of a dark room. I enter with a flashlight, and can only see a few things (because attention is narrow). I see an overflowing bucket under the leak (because working memory is limited). I then feel exhausted (because concentration is hard), so I lay down to forget it all (because we forget things).


The next day, the students filled in a blank diagram of the learning process in order to recall what they had learned the previous day. Then they were asked to remember the four natural obstacles. I used my “memory image” to prompt them, and some students quickly recalled the phrases–demonstrating how a good memory image can be a big help in building memories of the material they study. 


At this point, we turned to strategies for studying that are laid out in Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel’s recent book Make it Stick: The Science of Effective Learning. I especially stressed the value of retrieval practice, “recalling facts or concepts or events from memory.” Using flashcards and generating study question & answer sheets are two ways of doing this. I also stressed that this practice needs to be spaced out and that you should switch among topics. When you do this, “retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer-lasting learning and enables more versatile applications of it in later settings” (Brown et al. 3- 4).


Our next topic was the importance of taking notes in class and while reading. We examined the pros and cons of outline note-taking, mapping, and the Cornell Notes method. This last method asks students to summarize the notes and to include a list of key terms and study questions that they can use to self-quiz. 


I was impressed by the curiosity shown by many of the students, some of whom asked for index cards to make flashcards and strategies for using them. A number also showed interest in Cornell Notes, so we are ordering looseleaf paper formatted for this style. I finished these sessions feeling energized and looking forward to a great year of teaching these great kids!


Mary Agnes Edsall, English Faculty